Singer Michael Cooney has defined folk music as those songs "we play together sitting around at home." One of the world's richest repositories of such songs is the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Culture, which contains more than 300,000 examples of folk song and folk lore. In a benefit concert at Lisner Auditorium last night to raise money for the archive, four singers performed songs from the archive's collection.
The undiminished beauty and vitality of those antique, anonymously written songs were proof enough of the archive's value.
Alan Jabour, a former Archive researcher, opened the evening with a set of fiddle tunes he learned from a mountain family. Cooney followed with a broad variety of American folk songs. He played a North Carolina song on a homemade banjo about cooking groundhogs, a Texas prison song with a tin whistle and a school bus satire as an audience sing-along.
Joe Hickerson, the Archive's current director, opened the show's second half with a cappella rarities. One Prince Edward's Island song aptly described the motivation of folk music: "Drive Dull Care Away." An obscure Civil War antiwar song was as powerful as any recent composition.
Odetta closed the show with Afro-American funeral laments and prison protests. Her enormous, operatic voice at times burdened the songs with too many embellishments; at other times her powerful contralto liberated a song from its simple chords and sent it soaring. The show climaxed with all four performers joining on the archive's most famous discovery: Huddie Ledbetter and John Lomax's "Goodnight Irene."